Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Nevada Democrats have spent tens of thousands of dollars on a series of attack mail pieces aimed at state Sen. Joe Heck, intensifying a battle to control the upper chamber of the Legislature currently held by Republicans.
The ads are tough — and misleading, with a series of images depicting suffering cancer patients. The glossy mailings say Heck, a physician, voted against requiring insurance companies to include cervical cancer screenings in their basic coverage, even as he accepted campaign donations from insurance companies.
“Dr. Joe Heck took money from insurance lobbyists and voted ‘no’ to cervical cancer screenings,” one ad said.
That statement, and at least one other in the mailings, appears to be incorrect. Insurance companies have been required by the state to cover screenings for cervical cancer since 1989, according to the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the research arm of the Legislature. The ads don’t have citations, but seem to refer to legislation from 2007, though the bill had nothing to do with cervical cancer screening. The 2007 Legislature passed a law authored by state Sen. Dina Titus requiring some insurance companies to cover Gardasil, the vaccine for the human papilloma virus, a precursor to cervical cancer.
In an interview Wednesday, Heck said: “What bothered me is that my career has been as patient advocate. I work at the county hospital, and to see them take a couple votes and distort them, and attack me because they’re so desperate to take control of the Senate and too embarrassed to put their own candidate out there, it showed how low the Democrats are willing to go.”
The District 5 Republican did vote against requiring the vaccine for sexually transmitted HPV and has been criticized for doing so in other venues. Heck said he opposes new mandates on insurance companies because they increase the cost of coverage.
The Democrats have sent out at least three separate mailers showing scenes of medical distress, including bald women apparently undergoing chemotherapy, a woman in a hospital bed, an empty wheelchair and the obligatory grainy picture of the physician Heck looking like anything but a caregiver.
The Nevada State Democratic Party paid for the mail pieces.
Gary Gray, a Democratic consultant who specializes in mail pieces but did not create these, estimated the cost at more than $20,000 each.
The mailings never mention the name of Heck’s opponent, retired Clark County School District administrator Shirley Breeden.
Robert Uithoven, Heck’s campaign manager, said: “Why is the state Democrat Party spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and haven’t even mentioned the name of the candidate?”
The answer is that the Democrats want to demonize Heck in hopes voters will choose his opponent, regardless of whether they know anything about her, party insiders say.
The stakes in the race are high. Republicans hold an 11-10 advantage in the state Senate, with incumbents Heck and Republican state Sen. Bob Beers, of District 6, in some danger of defeat in what appears to be a Democratic year. Democrats are eager to control the upper chamber because they then could dominate the 2009 legislative agenda in tandem with the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
Also, the Legislature will redraw congressional and legislative maps after the 2010 census, including a potential extra congressional seat.
Travis Brock, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, wouldn’t say how much the mailings cost or where the money came from. Nevada public disclosure laws don’t require the party to reveal anything until October.
Brock said the ads are intended to “educate voters in the district” but wouldn’t say anything about their substance.
Other Democratic Party sources suggested the ads might be the handiwork of state Sen. Steven Horsford, the newly elected Senate minority leader.
Horsford, however, said he was “not involved in the creation or approval of it.” He added: “I’m supporting the Democratic Party to make sure they have the resources to support Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.”
Breeden also had little to say about the ads. “The tone, to me, is exactly how he voted. Times are tough and people want a change.”
Breeden also could be a piece in a larger political chess match. Not only do Democrats salivate about controlling the state Senate, but they’re also concerned about Heck’s role in the 2010 election.
Allies of Sen. Harry Reid say they are most concerned about a challenge from Heck, who in addition to being a physician is a colonel in the Army Reserve.
Heck is also frequently mentioned as a candidate for governor. In that case, he could wind up facing another Reid — Harry’s son Rory Reid, the chairman of the Clark County Commission.
The Reids’ allies have a firm hand on the state party.